Larry Ellison and the human zoo

Pacific Ocean, off the coast of San Diego. 15 December 2018

The helicopter landed gently on the deck of the gigantic yacht. Sergey could see Larry Ellison, the boss of Oracle, being helped out of his wheelchair by his assistants. He was anxious to greet his guest standing up. 
Sergey marshaled his energy to create a good impression. It was the first time he had been out in an eternity. He felt nervous and unsure of himself. Wayne winked at him in encouragement.

Sergey waited until the copter’s blades had come to a complete halt before getting out. He took a deep breath and jumped on to the deck. Smiling, he walked briskly up to Larry Ellison. He wanted to look young. He was shit- scared of giving a bad impression. Ellison was a Google shareholder but, most important of all, he was a malicious gossip. He would have no qualms about spreading the word if Sergey had an attack.
Ellison was even more hunched and skinnier than the last time. The slightest gust of wind of could blow him away by the looks of it. He held out a limp, pale, liver-spotted hand that Sergey shook as delicately as possible from fear of snapping a finger.
– Hi, Larry. Looking good, he lied
– Sergey, so happy to see you. But where’s you wife?
– I came alone, Larry.
I am sorry. You know how much I like your ... Her name escapes me.
– Anne. My wife’s name is Anne, Larry.
– Sure.

Ellison was starting to feel tired. His legs trembled with the strain. Standing upright had become difficult for him. He clicked his fingers and his carers put him back in his electric wheel chair.
Oracle V was a veritable floating town. Larry Ellison had fitted it out to live there full time away from prying eyes. The old man controlled his empire from the ocean. Two heavily armed frigates were on constant patrol around the yacht to ensure his safety – the paranoid multibillionaire’s latest folly. Four hundred feet long and practically unsinkable, Oracle V was the most powerful private vessel in the world. It flew the flag of Lost Island, a desert island in the Pacific which belonged to Ellison.

The two men shut themselves away in Larry’s private rooms. Like all poor boys who’d made good, Larry had never managed to shed his bad habits. He had to show off and parade his wealth for all to see like some two-bit gangster. Plebeians bought art books online from Amazon. Ellison bought art online from Sotheby’s. Sergey pretended interest in his latest purchases – an autoportrait of Rembrandt and a sculpture by Giacometti. The yacht overflowed with works of art and items from 20th-century movie sets. 

They sat down to drink tea at a Louis XV table inlaid with marquetry. Pornographic Jeff Koons photos were displayed cheek-by-jowl with original Star Wars costumes and paintings by the Italian and Flemish Renaissance masters. It was all so overpowering it was nauseating.
Sergey swallowed a neurosoother with a mouthful of green tea.

– Tell me about your Parkinson’s, Sergey. Under control?”
– Nothing to report, Larry. As you can see, I’m in fine fettle. My doctors are positive.”
– Don’t believe those fool doctors. They’ll tell you anything to keep you in their clutches.”
– I’m real good, Larry. Let’s talk about you. Your artificial legs, when are they
scheduled for?
The operation is scheduled for the middle of next year. I asked the engineers at Toyota to tweak a few details here and there.”
– I can’t wait to see you get out of that chair, Larry. A guy with your energy deserves a better life.”
– I’ll be the first man in the world to get the new generation of robotic
prosthetics. Up to now the prototypes were only ever tested on animals. Officially, anyways.”
Man-machine fusion is slowly starting to look like something, Larry. And like always, you’re a trailblazer, the leader ever showing the way.”
– Come on, let’s not get carried away. I’ll probably feel pretty ne
rvous when I go into that operating theater at the idea of losing these two,” said Larry, tapping his old legs.
– You’ll be pleased with the result. I know Akiro Suzuka, the boss of Toyota’s robotics department. We were together at Stanford. You’re in good hands. I tried my best to hire him a few times but he can’t even think about quitting Japan.”
– He’s a top class yellow devil. If the legs work like he says they do, I might even be tempted by the prosthetic arms. They’re about to finalize the brain interface. Akiro Suzuka told me just yesterday that a guinea pig from the army, both arms amputated, could already peel an apple with a knife.

– How are your clones?”
– My personal clone just celebrated its second birthday, thanks for asking. It’s already as like me
as two peas in a pod. A lousy personality and an obvious flair for science.
– Great.”
– What about yours’?”
– He’s one year old. I’m not, you know,
ready, to meet him just yet.”
– I can understand that.”
– What about the other clones?”
– They’re growing up so fast! Life at sea isn’t always easy. All those kids bring a bit of life and high spirits to the ship.”
– Glad to hear it, Larry.”

Wayne was eating with Ellison’s men. They were screaming and shouting as they watched a base ball game. The noise was intolerable. He pushed away his plate and went out on deck to stretch his legs and breathe in the sea air. It took him more than an hour to tour the ship, explore its three teak decks, and some of its passageways. Oracle V was a labyrinth of cabin-lined passageways which always came out somewhere on to a tennis court, a swimming pool, a laboratory, a kindergarten, even a movie room.
Wayne came to a halt at the glass window of a games room. Some fifteen little children were playing with building bricks and scribbling on sheets of paper under the watchful gaze of three blonde women built like goddesses. The sight soothed him. This was his first outing for a long time and it did him good. Being cooped up at Mountain View had put him on edge. The last few weeks had been a strain. The Googleplex had become like a prison to him.

Sergey was no longer the same man. The brain implant had changed his personality and caused mood swings that were hard to handle. The boss had become paranoid and thrived on gossip. Only hot stuff in dirt files could raise his spirits. He had pushed his wife out of his inner circle. Sex tapes with starlets and dirty phone taps turned him on. Google’s share price and the stewardship of his business empire left him cold. Sergey had become a bitter misanthrope, focused only on his grand project. He watched over AI like a maniacal gardener over a bonsai tree. His baby’s progress brought tears to his eyes.
The scalability of the algorithm was stupendous. AI improved its codes at exponential speed. Even the most conservatives estimates from his cognitive ICT specialists put the critical development date at 2035, when AI would be millions of times more intelligent than homo sapiens, doubling its brainpower every six months, and becoming de facto the only source of progress on earth. AI would be man’s final invention. From stone carvings to Google, homo sapiens had given his all and had now reached the limits of his biological creativity.

Sergey was waiting for the singularity with near-demented impatience. He wanted to stay alive until the ultimate paradigm shift. The singularity would mean unimaginable changes. Non-biological intelligence was the key to his own immortality. Soon, humanity would be in the hands of machines. The singularity was a byword for posthumanity. And nobody outside a handful of initiates measured the scale, force, or imminence of what was coming.
Sergey had put his life on pause, content to wait. He had to survive at all costs in the prison of his sick, nauseating body until awareness could be uploaded. To kill time, he got his rocks of watching sex tapes and humiliating politicians. Wayne accompanied him on this destructive, deathly journey like a devoted servant.

He watched the children piling up building bricks with a broad smile. He was probably the best paid personal assistant in the world. But his mental health was invaluable to him. He wouldn’t be able to last much longer in these conditions.
Larry Ellison was fascinated by the American movies of his youth and the stars from the golden age of showbiz. He paid fortunes for snippets of the hair of dead and living movie stars. 

His precious collection of human DNA included hundreds of celebrities. With a resurgence in the incidence of grave-robbing, cemeteries had had to hire security personnel to stem the flourishing trade. A lock of hair or a bone from a famous star would find buyers willing to pay over a million dollars. Larry had paid ten million for Michael Jackson’s femur. And competition between fetishistic billionaires was as fierce as it was discreet. The heir to the IKEA fortune had snatched a strand of Albert Einstein’s white hair from under Larry’s nose for five million dollars.

Sergey held out. He put up with his host’s conversation throughout the interminable dinner. He stayed calm, polite, and not even the slightest tremor ruffled his hip entrepreneur number. Ellison bombarded him with questions about AI, how European bioethical legislation was evolving, his new Boeing 797 aircraft, and rumors that the governor of California was gay. He quenched the old man’s thirst for news. Since he had been living on the ocean and become involved in genetic manipulation, Larry Ellison had missed contact with others of his standing. He had cut himself off and couldn’t conceal his solitude. Sergey was one of the loyal few who were allowed to set foot on his ship. As such, he was also entitled to visit Larry’s laboratory zoo. It was a just reward for the effort Sergey had made.

A two-way mirror gave on to an enormous child’s bedroom. The clone of Michael Jackson, dressed in a genuine spangled suit from the Jackson Five days, was scribbling in a copy book. He paid no attention to the Supremes video that was showing on a giant screen. He was black as ebony, with a flat nose and fuzzy hair. He was more like Lionel Richie than the King of Pop.
Michael is three-and-a-half,” said Larry proudly. “He’s already got rhythm in his blood, believe me.”
– He’s going to need serious plastic surgery,” Sergey commented.
Michael will do what he wants. I want to be magnanimous and treat these kids like a father should, with humanity and respect.”
– Is he always dressed like that?”
– You’ll see, they’ve all dressed in their best just for you.”
– How nice.”

Larry peered at the bedroom command screen. The computer was looping through the entire musical background the singer had steeped in as a child. Genes alone couldn’t produce a worthwhile clone. The environment was just as important. Larry put on an old James Brown number.
– This song always gives him itchy feet. He’ll start dancing, you’ll see.”
Impassively, the kid continued his scribbling. Larry seized the microphone. – Michael, it’s Dad. Do a little dance for me, will you, buddy.”
Glancing rapidly at the screen, he shook his head. Larry raised his voice.
– Michael!”
Reluctantly, the little boy stood and unenthusiastically rolled his hips to the funk music. He did a quick moon walk, bowed, and went back to his colored pencils. Larry was over the moon.
– Well, what do you say?”
– Marvelous,” lied Sergey.

Marilyn Monroe was a pretty little redhead with chubby, freckled cheeks. She wore an immaculate white dress over her diapers. She was playing with a doll on the carpet. Another athletically built little girl was beating on a teddy bear with a plastic hammer.
Guess who her friend is,” asked Larry.
Looks familiar ... That face ... That haughty air, that self-assurance.”
Katharine Hepburn, two-and-a-half!”
Sergey was dumbfounded. He had always worshipped the actress. The sound of her voice made him melt.
Marilyn needed to share a room with someone. She’s, you know, psychologically fragile.”
Katharine Hepburn ...!”
My man had an incredible stroke of luck when he burgled her personal physician’s practice in Connecticut. The doctor could never bring himself to throw away Katherine’s blood samples after she died.
Katharine Hepburn, oh my God ...”
– As you know, she carries markers that predispose her to Parkinson’s disease. I’m relying on your foundation to find a cure.”
Sergey tapped the old man on the arm.
– It’s a matter of years, you know, maybe months.”
– That’s great news.”
– Can I go in and talk to her for a moment?”

Larry activated the door command. The faces of the two little girls lit up. They ran to their daddy’s wheelchair. They hugged his old legs, squealing “Daddy, Daddy!” Sergey introduced himself. Both model little girls curtseyed.
They wanted to please their father and perform for him. Marilyn suggested a song by the Pointer Sisters, while Katharine wanted to dance. They argued. Katharine’s voice dizzied him. He would have recognized it among thousands. 

The electric wheelchair whizzed along the ship’s passageways. Larry was proud of his zoo. Sergey followed his guide with quaking legs. The visit was entertaining, but gut-stirring.

Elvis Presley, at four years old the eldest of the brood, sang That’s All Right Mama and jerked his pelvis. The resemblance was striking. 
He answered Larry with “Yes, sir, Colonel Parker” and didn’t seem to know where he was. 
Larry admitted that he might have gone too far with the kid from Mississippi. He was the first of his clones and had borne the brunt of Larry’s still raw educational expertise. Elvis had been raised more strictly and in greater solitude than his brothers and sisters. The method had not paid off. He had grown unpredictable, bulimic, and prone to eczema.
Some junk behaviorist suggested playing him delta blues at night and rock’n’roll during the day,” confided Larry. “From the time he was an embryo up to two years old, he never knew what silence was.”
That helps understand why his gaze is so weirdly vacant.”
– Can’t make an omelet without cracking eggs. There’s another little Elvis under preparation in the lab. This one I’ll call Jesse Garon.”

Sergey felt as if he was in a dream that bordered on a nightmare. There was single-minded method in Larry Ellison’s madness. Breeding clones was just
another way of sating his passion and passing time until the singularity came. Whereas most billionaires collected sports cars and real estate, Larry devoted himself to turning reproductive cloning into an art form. There was flair to his folly.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spent their time fighting. Larry had had no choice but to take away their colored pencils and any blunt instruments to prevent them killing each other. A beautiful blond nurse was changing Humphrey Bogart’s diapers while he relieved his teething trouble by chewing a felt hat.
He saw Frank Sinatra pulling Kurt Cobain’s hair. 
He saw Diana Ross steel John Wayne’s pacifier. 
He saw John Wayne in his cowboy get-up crying like a little baby. 
He saw Liz Taylor as Cleopatra having her behind ogled by a precocious gladiator with a dimple in his chin.

Eventually, Sergey begged for mercy. He was mentally exhausted. Larry insisted on introducing him to JFK, but he refused politely and claimed he had an urgent matter to attend to at the Googleplex so he could leave that day. He wouldn’t sleep a wink if he stayed on board the Oracle. He could picture himself starring at the ceiling, unable to get the children’s faces out of his mind.
One question gnawed at him.
– What are you going to do with the clones when they grow up?”
– What do you mean?”
– These kids are going to grow up. They’ll understand where they came from
and who they are ...”
They already know who they are, Sergey. We make it our business to remind them all day long.”
– Some of them might take it badly. They might turn aggressive towards you.”
The unstable subjects will leave the ship and pursue a career in show business. They’ve got fine futures ahead of them. In 2035 the public will be tolerant and
sophisticated. Cloning will be a non-issue, something as banal as basket- weaving or fishing. Believe me, Sergey, people will love ‘em.”

The long return flight passed off without a word being exchanged. Sergey was worn out. The coastline approached fast. His gaze wondered over the horizon that glittered like an army of glowworms. The copter cut through the night at full throttle, its vibration numbing limbs and preventing sleep.
Occasionally, Wayne glanced at his boss and thought of his future. He had enough money to vanish and start a new life under a new identity. He could buy a house on a tropical island. He could buy a boat and start fishing. Maybe he would even manage to lead a normal life far out of the reach of Google’s tentacles. There was, however, a problem: he had no idea what a normal life entailed. All he knew about the lives ordinary people led was what he saw on TV. He had been raised by his father, a military man, before going to West Point, serving in army special units, and then joining the CIA. The ABC of a social life and human relationships were unknown to him. He closed his eyes and pictured what everyday life with a pretty girl at his side might be like. A redhead with a Southern accent, preferably, like that Times Square hooker he used to see when he was on leave in Manhattan.
Running away was complicated and risky, though. He knew too much to hand in his notice and retire. In his branch of business and as deeply immersed as he was in the personal life of the master of the world, he could retire only on the day of his funeral. Negotiating was not an option. Desertion would mean a bullet in the back of his neck and winding up in a slab of concrete. The fantasy about the neat redhead was just a delusion, a straw of hope to clutch at.

The copter flew along the West Coast heading north to Mountain View. Since Los Angeles, Sergey Brin had been staring fixedly ahead. Occasionally he did actually faint with his eyes wide open. In two seconds Wayne could open the door and toss him out into to the void. The pilot wouldn’t notice a thing. He could say it was suicide, an act as sudden as it was desperate caused by Sergey’s illness. He smiled as he considered how stupid the idea was. Sergey was a good guy who suffered from a debilitating, still incurable, disease. He felt friendship and admiration for him. His desire to breathe fresher air was not connected to any sense of hate. It was the result of a stifling situation, a Gordian knot which no blade was tough enough to cut through. His fate was tied to his boss’s. For ever. If Sergey were to die, moppers-up from the government or Google would have no hesitation in bumping off his personal assistant to help him hold his tongue.

Wayne turned on the TV and came across a documentary. It was about the real life of some real people. A family of average Americans set off on vacation in their campervan. The kids were sang way out of tune in the back. As he watched, his spirits rose. It looked as if real people actually did lead shitty lives.